Why wasn’t Auschwitz bombed, really?

Anderson Harkov's reasoning that it was “because America was not willing to use its ample resources to intervene in a genocide where Americans were not being killed” is an incorrect understanding.

THE LIBERATION of Auschwitz is the opening image of 'Liberation-The First Moments.' (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE LIBERATION of Auschwitz is the opening image of 'Liberation-The First Moments.'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the spring of 1944, there were two unquestionable facts about the American government: First, the Roosevelt Administration was fully aware of the genocidal purpose of Auschwitz/Birkenau; and second, Americans had the ability to strike Auschwitz/Birkenau using B-17 Flying Fortress bombers.
A 1,300-word opinion piece titled “Why wasn’t Auschwitz bombed?” appeared in The Jerusalem Post on January 25. The author, Anderson Harkov, determined that Auschwitz “wasn’t bombed because America was not willing to use its ample resources to intervene in a genocide where Americans were not being killed.” This is an incorrect understanding of history.
The headline question presumes that bombing a death camp was the right thing to do, or even that bombing was desired by the afflicted party. Instead, the de facto leader of the Jewish people, Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion, wrote on June 11, 1944, “The view of the board is that we should not ask the Allies to bomb places where there are Jews.”
Although Ben-Gurion soon after reversed his opinion, bombing Auschwitz was not even advocated by Jewish leadership until after more than 5.5 million Jews had already been slaughtered in ghettos, killing fields, scores of concentration camps, and five other death camps. Instead, Jewish focus had been on Jewish emigration out of Europe.
It should also be remembered that concurrent with Ben-Gurion’s letters of June 1944, the Allies were otherwise busy with the largest naval invasion in world history, D-Day. This was 16 months after Germany’s devastating defeat by the Soviets in the Battle of Stalingrad, starting their inexorable Soviet drive to Berlin.
The Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland, was liberated by the Soviets on July 22, 1944, just a month after Ben-Gurion had changed his mind. By then, the Soviets had pushed the Axis armies out of all of Soviet Russia, and had vanquished the Germans in Vilnius and in Minsk (the respective largest cities of Lithuania and Belarus). By August of 1944, the Soviets were already in Romania and deeper into Poland. So, by the summer of 1944, the question was not if Auschwitz would be neutralized, but when.
Another flawed assumption is that American bombers even could have destroyed the Auschwitz/Birkenau infrastructure. According to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, by 1944 only 7% of all bombs dropped by the Eighth Air Force hit within 300 meters of their aim point. To be clear, that means only one in 14 bombs landed as close as within three football fields to their targets.
It would have required 108 B-17 bombers (18 squadrons), crewed by 1,080 airmen, dropping 648 bombs for just two of them to have hit within a 150 square meter area, with an effective blast radius of a 1,000 pound bomb on a railway target of approximately 10 meters. Conversely, the majority of the other 646 bombs would have landed on the 100,000 Jewish laborers barracked at Birkenau, some of whom ultimately survived to liberation.
Even if the American bombers had hit all their targets, there was still the question of efficacy. It is assumed that 80% of the infrastructure required for a railway is in the foundation. It was understood by the Allies that a German rail track that was bombed on Friday would be rebuilt by Monday. Further, even though Jewish prisoners (Sonderkommando) destroyed two of five Birkenau crematoria in October of 1944, the Germans continued killing Jews and then burning them in overflow pyres.
Even if the tracks and gas chambers had been totally destroyed, the Germans would simply have reverted to bullets or gas vans for the remaining Hungarian Jews, who were the last to be deported.
HOWEVER, THE underlying question is: Why did America do so little to help the Jews during the Holocaust? The simplest answer is personified by Breckinridge Long, assistant secretary of state from 1940-1944, who directly thwarted the legal immigration of Jewish refugees to America.
Long’s subterfuge – aided by like-minded antisemites on both sides of the pond – was ultimately revealed in 1944 to Roosevelt by secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., who was known as “Roosevelt’s Jew.” Assistant secretary Long was dismissed in disgrace, and the War Refugee Board was created, which was responsible for settling 200,000 Jews in America.
The more complicated answer as to why America did so little to help the Jews of Europe was pervasive American racism. Within the lifetimes of many who were elders in American government during the early rise of Nazism, America had enslaved and then segregated blacks, slaughtered and despoiled native Americans, enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and criminalized free speech with the Sedition Act of 1918.
From 1934 to 1945, approximately 350,000 Americans were sterilized due to eugenics laws. Both homosexuality and miscegenation were punishable in America until well after World War II. And, of course, Japanese Americans were put in internment camps after Pearl Harbor and branded enemies of the state, just as Jews were classified by Nazi Germany.
From that perspective, the totality of American history in regard to non-Europeans appeared to be no different in law or practice from stated Nazi policies. And, frankly, why would anyone have expected the racially segregated US military to have fought the racism of other nations?
Further, Jews and many other minorities were systematically barred from certain housing, black-balled in private clubs, faced quotas in education, and were hindered in prominent professions. From Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s order to expel Jews from the southern territories he controlled during the Civil War to Henry Ford’s distribution of a half million copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the 1920s, discrimination against Jews in America was far greater than was discrimination against the Jews in Germany, at least until the early 1930s.
So when it came time to call out the Germans for racism, despoilment and “resettlement,” men like Long and Ford found nothing either new or objectionable about German policies.
While many lessons can be learned from history, truth must be the starting point. First, America had no will to help Jews in the 1940s because, honestly, America was a racist country that only started to shed its xenophobia in the 1950s, and only then because Hitler had given racism such a bad name. And second, the bombing of Auschwitz has become a retroactive panacea – a catchphrase – that falsely implies a military solution to the German killing machine.
Certainly the US government lied about its inability to conduct air raids over Auschwitz. And certainly, in a post-Inglourious Basterds world, it is optimistic to have thought that Uncle Sam could have done more. The esteemed Prof. Michael Berenbaum argued that bombing Auschwitz was less of a military question than “a moral question emblematic of the Allied response to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust.”
True enough. The moral rot was deep. But in the end, many thousands survived Auschwitz/Birkenau to liberation, partly due to one correct decision, which is something.
The writer is a lecturer for Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies and the author of the soon-to-be-published book The Holocaust Film Bible: 75 Years of Narrative Holocaust Film (1945-2020).